Jesse awoke at eleven with a pounding headache. He sat up and slid his feet off the bench to the ground. He could feel the morning heat rising off the pavement through the cloth moccasins he’d made out of T-shirts found in a waste can two days ago. Already, the bottoms were getting thin. He would have to find something to replace them in another couple days. He sat with his head thumping in his hands.
Raising his bruised melon he saw his first glimpse of the day and was met by blinding, painful sunlight. Reeling and covering his eyes, he remembered hearing on a radio an old man had been listening to that the city was going through a heat wave. This was helpful at night, as he could sleep on benches without a blanket. He was back on his own again. He enjoyed the communal brotherhood of the homeless camps, which during the winter are strewn across the city like sea-shells on the shores of civilization. In the summer, though, the communities grew hostile and competitive, so he would strike out and live from park bench to cardboard box.
He carried his life in a paper sack, which he reached for as his eyes adjusted to the abundance of daylight. Midway through the extension of his arm, he lurched sideways with a sharp intake of breath as he clutched his left side in agony. After a few minutes of writhing, he regained his composure and grabbed his life from beside last night’s bed. Uncrinkling the top of the bag from around the mouth of a bottle of whiskey, he reached in and removed a pack of Camel unfiltered cigarettes he’d bought with money from collecting cans. Twenty-seven dollars and seventy-five cents, half of which went to the bottle and five dollars for the cigarettes, which left him with seven dollars and twenty-three cents to last him until he could come up with another way to make some money.
The only other things in the sack were a lighter, pocket knife, and two items from the life he’d lived before his fall from grace. One was a bus pass which he used to get from one nest to another, minimizing his risk of being picked up, or hassled, by the police. The other was a present from his now dead daughter. It was a small smooth river stone about an inch in diameter, with streaks of white running through the dull gray color of the rock.
It was the stone that he pulled out now, as he did every morning. Holding it gently between his thumb and index finger, he touched the stone to his forehead, stomach, and shoulders in a religious gesture he’d seen many times in his life. He wasn’t Catholic, but for some reason this simple ritual he performed twice a day, once when he woke up and again before he went to sleep, gave him strength of spirit that almost seemed to give him physical strength as well.
It also helped him remember how he got to this point and why he soldiered on. Thinking on this, he was pulled quickly to the death of his family. They had been so happy; his wife and children so carefree and loving. They had all been so excited about the trip. If only he’d gotten an extra hour of sleep the night before, he might not have decided to switch places with his wife. The day had been such a good one, too; his daughter had given him the pebble she found in the yard. Even now this struck him as odd since they had lived in a cul-de-sac, no body of water around for miles.
He remembered her running up to him as if it had happened only yesterday, nothing like the….twenty?….good lord he thought twenty years; it’s really has been that long. She had run up right after breakfast with it hidden in her fist. She said, “I have a present for you, Daddy.” He remembered not giving it more than half a look before he thanked her, hugged her, and tossed it in his pocket. He also remembered that she had said something about it being a special rock before he corralled her into preparing her things for the trip.
Both of his children were sleeping in the back seat when it happened. The only thing he could be thankful for in the entire situation was the fact that they weren’t conscious. He himself was half asleep, which was why he didn’t see the head lights drift into their lane. Before he knew what was happening, the sound of the guard rail scraping the side of the car shot him awake in time to hear his wife screaming as the bulldozer sized Ford slammed into them head on.
Not able to contain his mind, he was thrown into memories of regaining consciousness, and finding his wife’s lifeless eyes staring back at him. How he climbed painfully out of the cavity which had miraculously formed around him. Left with a minor concussion and broken ankle, he reached the ground on unsteady feet and was thrown like a ragdoll to the earth by the nightmare image of both his children lying in a twisted heap several feet from the wreck. Crawling to the last remnants of his family, he began crying. He felt a small hand on his and he looked up to find his daughter looking at him through the rheumy eyes of an old woman.
“Don’t move, honey, the medics should be here soon,” he remembered saying, choking through his tears.
“Daddy?” she said weakly.
“Yes, baby, Daddy’s here.”
“Daddy, do you still have my pebble?”
“What? Yes, baby.” He replied. A big smile came across the girl’s face as with her final breath she said, “Good. Remember, it’s special. I love you, Daddy.” With these words, the last breath of life faded from her clouded eyes, leaving him alone. The paramedics arrived on the scene in ten minutes and found him later cradling his daughter’s head, crying and shouting incoherently.
He always had trouble remembering the next few weeks; the funeral, the parade of faces all wishing him luck and offering support. It was during this dull period that he came to believe that he must have lived for some particular reason, and that he wouldn’t let his family have died in vain. He tried to continue life as usual, but soon began drinking. He started out modestly, with a drink or two so that he was numb enough to sleep, but it quickly grew into a monster that caused him to lose his job, house, and car.
After it was all said and done, he had nothing but the contents of a brown paper sack and the clothes on his back. Since then, Jesse Ichabod’s life had continued spiraling downward. He would spend winters in the back alley camps like a rat stowing away in a ship. Biding his time, he would help hunt the trash cans looking for the closest thing to wood they could find to make fires, along with scraps of food and clothing. Summers were spent moving, always moving, and combing for cans, food, and clothing.
He let the memories wash over and pull another little piece of his soul as they went. Shaking his still aching head to clear the last remnants, he grabbed his sack, quickly twisted the lid off of the bottle and took a slug to steady his hands. The pain in his side was nagging him again, so he took another drink to numb it. Rising slowly he could hear how he popped and cracked at every joint as stretched the sleep from his still tired muscles. Looking around, Jesse noticed that there was a garbage basket that looked promising. He thumbed the pebble through the bottom of the sack and felt better about were the day was headed. The pain in his side caused him to limp slightly as he walked, so it took him several minutes to reach the basket he’d scoped from his bed.
Raking through the rubbish, he found five cans and a bag to carry them, so he stuffed the bag and tied the top so he could carry it. Moving from here, he cut across town only stopping to scurry into a sandwich shop long enough to use the last of his money to buy a hoagie and rush back out before anyone could complain about the smell. He ducked into a back alley and ate half the sandwich, a classic Philly steak with the works. The aroma alone had him salivating before he left the shop. He sat and enjoyed the dance of flavors on his tongue before he lit up a cigarette. When the pain in his side reached a fevered pitch, he was brought to his feet, throwing him headlong into the wall opposite where he had been sitting. The nausea was all consuming; everything came back up: the hoagie, the liquor, and his pride.
Thinking to himself that this had been happening too often lately, he sidled a few feet toward the street, turned his back to the wall and slid slowly down until he was sitting with his life on one side and the bag of cans on the other. The only thing holding him up was the towering wall of bricks behind him. He sat staring at the graffiti he had just been sitting under. It seemed out of place to him; in a city full of gang tags, this piece read, “Wherefore is light given to him in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul?”
His headache was back so he took a drink of whiskey. This helped a little, but did nothing to ease the pain in his side. He pulled the stone from the bottom of his sack and performed his ritual for a much needed boost of confidence, and energy. As he finished, he stopped and looked at the stone, something about it had caught his eye. The white seemed to stand out as if someone had polished it. He had little time to wonder about it before he thought he heard a car go by particularly slowly and looked up to see a police car creeping by.
Hauling himself immediately to his feet, he knew from experience that the police would be back, so he dashed through the maze of connecting alleys as fast as his hobbling pace would let him. He directed his mind to a single destination, the bus stop ten blocks away. It was at this very bus stop Jesse had slept the first night after he lost his house, sold the car and rationed the cash for the next few years, but began sleeping on benches, starting with the one he found himself striving for now. He ran as if the hounds of hell themselves were snapping at his heels. He paid little attention to the walls, dumpsters, and dunks that slipped quickly by him. Glaring lights blared out into the shadowed alleys from restaurant kitchens and the smell of food mingled with filth.
He burst from the labyrinthine alleys was like a Vesuvian eruption, despite his impaired mobility, scaring the lady away who had been waiting on the bus. As soon as his feet stopped, Jesse’s side plunged him puking to the ground for a third time. The sting of bile filled his mouth as the last bits of liquor and stomach acid forced their way past his teeth. His vision cleared to a sight that terrified him. It had only happened a few times, but this was more than ever before. The crimson vision of a pool of Jesse’s blood on the pavement.
Fumbling for his sack, he pulled the stone out and held it pressed between his hands and forehead as he cradled his now pounding skull. A few minutes passed before his head eased up and miraculously his side seemed to as well. Raising his head, the first thing he saw was the stone. He didn’t know if it was just the light, which did seem brighter, but the white streaks seemed to jump out, as if they had a luminescence all their own. The next thing he realized was that the bus had pulled up; suddenly remembering why he’d been running in the first place, he pulled the bus pass swiftly out of the crinkled mouth of his paper sack, and climbed on the bus riding it to the opposite end of the city.
The bus was cramped as always, but his visage and clothing always cleared him a path to the back where no one would bother him. People wrinkled their noses as he went and whispered about how the bus driver could let such a shabby person on. He ignored them all and pushed his way back, until one man stopped him. At first Jesse didn’t feel the hand on his chest, but was surprised when he realized the guy was spinning him around to speak to him. The guy was about Jesse’s height, but of a stockier build.
He spoke to Jesse, but the only thing he heard was something about smelly bums, before the guy pushed Jesse back into a couple who were trying to inconspicuously look the other way. The guy took a swing at Jesse, but luckily he ducked and watched as the guy hit the girl who was trying to look away. This brought her boyfriend up out of his chair and at the guy who’d pushed Jesse. By this point the bus driver had stopped the bus, and Jesse forced the nearest door open, seeing an out from a bad situation, and clambered out into street.
Jesse started off in a direction not caring where it headed, but before he’d gone a block he remembered the cans he’d left on the other side of town, and cursed himself for losing money. He twisted the lid off his bottle turning it up, but was distraught to find that he’d emptied it. He tossed the bottle in the next can he passed, not even stopping to check for cans, he moved like a man possessed. Carrying on this way for a block and a half he was stopped by the familiar sound of screeching breaks and grinding metal. His attention was jerked around to see a fifteen year old boy lying on the ground not ten feet from him, flung partially into an alley from the wreck he’d just heard. Jesse was so shocked he couldn’t do anything for what seemed to him like half an hour. Once he came back to himself he carried himself clunkingly to the boy’s body.
His side was killing him again, but he didn’t feel it because he saw the boy’s face for the first time.
Not a very remarkable face, an average sized nose and strong chin. The boy’s eyes which were still open and pale blue, the color of winter. High cheek bones and fiery red hair were the defining features, but they weren’t what took his breath away. He was staring into the face of his dead son. Confused and shocked, he unthinkingly pulled the pebble from the bottom of his sack and let the paper cover he’d kept on his life fall to the pavement. Thoughts raced through his mind, my son died years ago, this can’t be him. What if it is? It can’t be. He looked back over the face noticing subtle differences he’d missed at first glance. This wasn’t his dead son, but he looked uncannily like him.
He could hear people in the middle of the street yelling, but he couldn’t hear what they were saying, he was more worried about the boy. His body was contorted in an all too familiar position. One arm bent behind his back, a leg poking the wrong way, neck cocked to one side. The next thing he noticed was that the boy was breathing, but only shallowly like a fish out of water. This rekindled his urgency. Shouting for help, he began panicking and tried to pick the boy up. The pain in his side intensified as he lifted him off the pavement and carried him back toward the wreck still yelling. He got as far as the edge of the street before he fell to his knees with the boy in his arms, tears streaking down his face. The pebble felt unusually hot in his hand, but he couldn’t collect his thoughts enough to address this oddity before another searing lance of pain shot through his side causing him to pivot on one knee and puke away from the boy.
He didn’t know it, but that last heroic display of disproportional strength had sealed Jesse Ichabod’s death sentence. He’d been carrying around three bleeding ulcers for about a year, and that last push had caused all three to rupture. Lying in a pool of his own blood and bile, Jesse thought of his family again: his wife’s loving voice, his son’s unfettered energy, and his daughters caring eyes. As memories drifted through his mind, Jesse realized the pebble wasn’t in his hand anymore. It must have fallen out of my hand when I threw up. He thought almost frantically. He tried to get up, but was thrown back down by the pain which had spread through his entire abdomen.
His vision was hazy, but he had enough strength to turn his head so he looked at the boy and in his out stretched hand was Jesse’s pebble. Trying to focus on it, he noticed that it seemed to still be glowing white, but it was much brighter than it had been. This was all he had strength for so he resumed staring up at the blue sky and the towering structures rising up on either side of him. He closed his eyes as his breathing became ragged and felt a calm spread over his body. He felt someone lean over him and mustered every last bit of will left in his person so that he might open his eyes one final time.
The last thing Jesse Ichabod saw in this life was the boy who looked so much like his son kneeling over him and crying. People were rushing into vision all around the boy as well, but he didn’t see any of them. The only thing he could look at was what the boy had in his hand. He held Jesse’s pebble as if it were the most precious gem in the world; placed carefully between the boys thumb and index finger Jesse could see it perfectly, the white streaks glowing brighter than the sun.